Empower your supervisors

In traditional organisations top managers are employed to ensure that organisations are competitive and that lower level managers and staff have job security. In these traditional organisations it is further expected that staff remain loyal and implement the strategy that management created with loyalty and obedience.


The contemporary organisation reverses this pyramid and makes empowered lower-level managers and employees responsible for organisational competitiveness and their own development. In these organisations the role of management is to support personnel to develop and to manage by removing obstacles and integrating capabilities.


The case of New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, California is often quoted to illustrate this concept. This programme was a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors (GM). GM closed the plant in 1982 in part because it was considered to have the worst workforce in America. There were wide-scale social and economic issues with staff, people did not show up for work and there was subtle sabotage of the cars. There were apparently some people that thought it funny to put coke bottles into the door assemblies during the manufacturing process, which would rattle once the car was in the hands of customers.


Toyota re-opened the plant in 1984. GM told them that the workers were awful but that the managers were great and recommended that they re-hire them. In stead they did not rehire the managers but hired most of the original workforce. A significant portion of these employees learnt new techniques that allowed them to follow the same precision methods used by Toyota in Japan at that time. The NUMMI plant improved and became on of the highest quality production units in the whole of GM’s line-up. The moral is that they achieved this with the same people – just a different system of organising management.


There are different types of managers in organisations.


Levels of management


  • Executive management are often called top management, executives or senior managers are responsible for developing the organization’s strategy and work on behalf of shareholders and the directors in achieving the financial bottom line and other strategic objectives. They are the stewards for the organisational vision and mission and would typically have some functional, general and direct staff reporting to them.


  • Functional managers are often called staff managers and are responsible for the efficiency and effectiveness of an area, such as accounting or marketing.


  • A general manager tends to be a manager of managers or is often times a manager of supervisors.


  • Supervisory or team managers are responsible for coordinating a subgroup of a particular function or a team composed of members from the same or different parts of the organization.


Managers are also classified by their functional role as staff managers, line managers and project managers as follows:


  • A staff manager leads a unit that produces indirect input.


  • A line manager leads a function that contributes directly to the products or services the organization creates.


  • A project manager has the responsibility for the planning, execution, and closing of projects.


Flatter management


The number of managers and “managers of managers” used to be determined by simple ratios. It is assumed that the average person can manager about 7-10 people so that in a military type hierarchy we appointed 1 supervisor for 10 people and for every 3 or more supervisor, we appointed one line manager. For every 3 or so line managers, there is a functional or general manager or an executive manager. This way the whole organisation fit into a command and control structure. The task of management was to plan, lead, organise and control and to report on this to the next level. In many ways this structure of management has failed. Using highly paid resources for reporting is waste of human capital. Planning is seldom effective. Leadership seems mystical and very ineffective in most organisations. Organising systems are often flawed due to bad planning. Control structures in most organisations have effectively been replaced by systems. So it seems that there is very little use for management.


There are many organisations that have realised this and there is wide-scale flattening of organisations and forcing a narrowing between management and delivery. Recent cases in large organisations have seen the removal of whole layers of management and re-organising the way work is done.


Research shows that teams that there is an organisation effect that occurs when team grow larger than 8 people as coordination starts taking more time than it contributes to results. Research also shows that for a team to be effective, that the team leader needs to be inside the team and have the skills to manage the team. One manager or executive can effectively coordinate 4-8 teams if they have the right skills and through ideas such as use of technology and automation, six sigma, lean, scrum and other modern management techniques a whole more can be achieved by small teams. This challenges the notion of large organisational structures and looks more at using small teams and cross-functional structures to achieve quick delivery of usable products and projects.


In many ways we are surprised when our organisations do not perform and when management sits down to analyse it – they often conclude that staff must the problem. They often appoint new managers to get higher-level people to manage the complexities of staff. The paradox is that management seldom looks at how it manages and very little is done to improve the management process. Smaller organisations also do not often have the capacity, or do not take the time to evaluate how effective management has been at what they need to do to improve the management process.


A challenge in evaluating the efficacy of management is that managers manage in a way that they think people work. All managers have the notion that employees need to work harder and stay longer hours, while often there is simply poor planning of execution and failure to engage with the key issues in a business. It can be argued that the basics of critical thinking and a lack of decision making is often the major determinant of business success and that managers that understand how to connect the dots, get much better results than those that do not. Gone must be the days where managers are air traffic controllers, reminder services, politicians fighting for resources and just there to forward mails between departments.


This brings us to the question to see what we need to do differently to enable managers to manage effectively and employees to perform.


A lot of management is about critically reflecting and ensuring that the soft skills in managing the team. A quick daily checklist for a manager is


  • What do you do to challenge the team to improve results daily?
  • How effectively do you interpret the team requirements?
  • Are you an effective decision maker?
  • Can you align the team tasks with organisational objectives?
  • Do you create team learning?
  • Can you anticipate what will be required from the team?
  • What can I do to improve the work organisation system of the team?


The whole science of teaming and team-based organisations is evolving rapidly and once you start looking there are lots of resources to help you to start re-organising the way that your organisation achieves its results.